In wake of outdoor deaths, Anchorage homeless community tries to cope

As Lisa Sauder relived the last two weeks and the deaths of a half-dozen regulars from Bean's Cafe, the Anchorage soup kitchen, she repeated words like "devastating," "heartbreaking" and "tragic."

"These are people we know," said Sauder, the Bean's director. "We love them. We care about them. We saw them every day. This has been very difficult, especially to cope with so many in such a short amount of time. In several cases our staff was directly involved with CPR -- literally trying to save lives."

Since the new year, 22 Bean's Cafe clients have died, 15 since the spring. If that rate continues, far more clients will die than in 2014, when the toll was 31.

"There is some concerns that there is some commonality in their deaths," Sauder said. "Many of our clients abuse multiple substances. Is there a link? We don't know. That is the reality. We will probably never know."

But regardless of how the person died, or how long they'd been a client, Sauder said, there are many things to do once they're gone. Community support -- from the Anchorage police and fire chaplains, to a mushing mortician who has volunteered time and effort -- help everyone left behind.

An ‘unfortunate and fortunate’ right to choose

Ellamae Clark, 54, was the most recent person to die in the two-week wave of deaths. She was discovered Tuesday across the street from Bean's Cafe. Sauder said Clark's death hit her the hardest.

For "quite some time" Sauder and the staff at Bean's Cafe worked to find Clark an assisted-living home. Clark suffered from medical issues and battled addiction, Sauder said. Even after Clark got into an assisted-living home, she struggled to stay away from life on the street.


"The night before she died, the staff begged her to go home, but she didn't," Sauder said..

At 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, police responded to Third Avenue and Karluk Street where a woman had gone into cardiac arrest. Emergency responders brought her to the Alaska Native Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.

Sauder was notified at 6 a.m. in an email. She said the news devastated her.

"Addiction is a tough, tough thing to kick," Sauder said. "Even though she died on the street, she died knowing we cared. She knew clients cared about her. I think at least for a short time before she passed away, she regained some dignity. She had a place to live. She had clean clothes, but her addiction -- she couldn't hold on."

"Unfortunately or fortunately, people have free will to choose. We want them to make the right choices but many times they don't," Sauder said.

Police said none of the deaths appear to be suspicious, but in Clark's death they believe alcohol was a factor.

Clark died just steps from Bean's Cafe and the Brother Francis homeless shelter, the same area where two others died in recent weeks.

On a morning late last week, that part of Karluk Street was quiet. Handmade memorials for John Lory Good and Harry Oxereok Jr. were strapped to a chain link fence. Raindrops slid down on flower petals, and onto the pavement next to a pile of cigarette butts.

As people strolled by, they stopped for a moment, touched the fence and kept walking.

Dignity after death

Over the last two weeks, the mood during breakfast at Bean's has turned sorrowful. While the staff tries to help clients cope, they're also dealing with their own grief.

"For each one of these deaths, I've had staff in my office with tears in their eyes saying things like, 'I wish I could have helped more or I wish I could have done more,'" Bean's Cafe program coordinator Scott Stender said.

Stender said the Bean's staff plays a much bigger role than just serving meals. They often act as life coaches or parental figures, which creates both professional and personal relationships.

"The short-term folks, it's really hard on them because they just started to see them everyday and then all of a sudden they're gone. I think it's kind of a culture shock. But then the folks who have been here for a while, have known them for a long time and have reached out to them, know these people's stories," Stender said.

Staff and clients have been leaning on Anchorage police and fire chaplains, who've made multiple visits to the shelter in the wake of recent events.

"Our job is to talk and listen to people," Anchorage police and fire chaplain Diane Peterson said. "If they want to talk spiritually we do, but if they don't we just talk about what's in their hearts."

Some of the chaplains later volunteer to conduct the person's funeral, which -- for the homeless community -- most often takes place Evergreen Memorial Chapel because of its downtown location, which is easily accessible by walking.

"I have never seen a small funeral for a homeless person," funeral home owner Scott Janssen said.


Janssen said the funeral home also helps low-income families find the funds for a service.

Janssen, also known as the Mushing Mortician, estimated his funeral home has done 300 services for people connected to the homeless community.

"Every life deserves some sort of service," Janssen said. "Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, even after they've passed."

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.